Honoring Selflessness

Larry Nagengast

, Community

Throughout this year, Out & About has been profiling local volunteers and the programs in which they serve. The series has been developed in cooperation with the State Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities through the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

The Governor’s Awards spotlight the many Delawareans who devote countless hours to helping their fellow citizens, the environment, and the arts

Passion and selflessness: That combination of qualities makes a fitting description for Delaware’s most dedicated volunteers.

“It’s very nice to be recognized, but to me it’s just a way of life,” says 77-year-old Patricia Saunders of Wilmington, recipient of a Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Service Award for community service. “I’m just trying to do what I can for other people.”

What Saunders does includes volunteering for more than 750 hours at Friendship House in 2017, helping individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. She greets them at the front desk, gets their mail, makes phone calls for them and keeps the social area near the building’s lobby neat and clean. On top of that, she cooks dinner for homeless men once a month, volunteers at her church and still helps with the Delaware Fund for Women, a nonprofit she helped create.

Saunders was one of 23 individuals and groups honored with the Governor’s Awards in late October. Recipients ranged from 94-year-old Ann Russell, a foster grandparent for 33 years, to 20-somethings Jennifer Proebstle, a University of Delaware student who volunteers for Planned Parenthood, and Jason Bakke, a volunteer in multiple capacities with the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.

Gov. John Carney presented the awards, with help from state Rep. David Wilson and officials of the state Office of Volunteerism.

Others who, like Saunders, demonstrate passion and selflessness in their service include Dee Durham and Marian Quinn, honored for their commitment to environmental causes; Chika Chukwuocha, recognized for promoting fitness among urban youth; and Norman A. Abrams Jr., saluted for his support of education and literacy programs.

Dee Durham with Rep. Wilson, Chuck Lax (who nominated her), and Gov. Carney. Photo Dan Trader Photography

Durham, 57, a Democrat who last month unseated an incumbent to win a seat on the New Castle County Council, was recognized for her leadership of Plastic Free Delaware, an organization she cofounded in 2010. The group engages in education and outreach, trying to affect local and state government policies, to reduce or eliminate the use of single-use plastics like straws and bags.

Durham says she learned community service from her parents. Her mother was a prison reform advocate in the 1960s and ‘70s and her father, an ophthalmologist, traveled around the world providing eye care to the poor and needy.

While cleanup efforts like those on Earth Day have mobilized many to environmental causes, they are just “a piece of the puzzle,” Durham says. “We want to address the root causes, to stop some of that stuff from getting out there to begin with.”

Marian Quinn receives her award from Rep. Wilson and the governor. Photo Dan Trader Photography

Leave the World a Better Place

She believes that “the purpose of my life is to leave the world a better place than how I found it. Environmental issues are a crisis in our time. As I get older, I’m redoubling my efforts to make a difference.”

Another environmental award recipient, Marian Quinn, has volunteered for 22 years with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research. She retrieves injured birds, works with the organization’s oil spill response team, trains new volunteers and delivers educational presentations.

Although she holds a master’s degree in library science, Quinn says she “had a blank slate as a human being” before volunteering with Tri-State. “It gave definition to who I am, taught me to be compassionate, to make presentations, to write for the newsletter, to present scientific information in a way the masses can understand. Those are all things that come from volunteering,” she says.

Working with birds “enables me to separate my needs from those of another being,” while also providing her with a common basis for connecting with others, she says.

“Birds are amazing creatures. They face tremendous challenges, the way the earth is being altered by humans,” she says.

Quinn praises the diverse volunteer team at Tri-State, “from ages 13 to 93,” who not only work directly with birds but also do laundry, shop for groceries, prepare for special events and maintain the facilities. “There are so many roles to fill,” she says. “You’re always learning.”

Also recognizing the importance of learning is Norm Abrams, who is wrapping up his second five-year term as a member of the Appoquinimink Board of Education. Abrams, 54, a Middletown resident, has spent more than 20 years volunteering in the school district, starting when he helped reorganize the PTA at Townsend Elementary School, which his daughter attended at the time. Besides his school board responsibilities, Abrams has been a leader and volunteer at book fairs, vendor fairs and other special events.

Spurred in part by his wife, a school librarian in the district, he has been an ardent promoter of literacy efforts. “Over the past 10 years, our PTAs have probably put more than $25,000 worth of books in our school libraries,” he says.

An advocate for literacy, Norm Abrams was congratulated by Rep. Wilson and Gov. Carney. Photo Dan Trader Photography

Abrams also is a strong advocate of having a fulltime librarian in every school, a practice he says many other districts have abandoned. Districts that don’t have librarians “are shooting themselves in the foot” because their absence has a negative impact on literacy, which ultimately leads to reduced academic achievement.

I Can Do 26.2

While Abrams promotes strong minds, Chika Chukwuocha promotes healthy bodies. About six years ago, she developed an interest in running, joining the Black Girls Run group, and improved to the point that she has twice completed the Philadelphia Marathon. With a strong interest in community service (the financial systems analyst is married to Nnamdi Chukwuoucha, the former Wilmington city councilman who was recently elected to the state House of Representatives), she doubled down on her children’s interest in running by starting I Can Do 26.2, a program for children ages 4 to 12, with the goal of having them run a total of 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon, over six weeks during the summer.

“I’ve seen children who are slightly obese, or who aren’t enthusiastic about running,” she says. “The first time, they can hardly do a lap” around the track behind P.S. du Pont Middle School, “then after a couple of weeks, they’re doing two or three laps. Then they won’t stop.”

Chika Chukwuocha was honored for a program that helps young people lead a more healthy lifestyle. Photo Dan Trader Photography

What pleases Chukwuocha most is getting texts and emails from parents telling her how much the youngsters want to continue with the running program.

She would like to expand the program beyond six weeks in the summer, and she’s working on finding funds to help achieve that goal. In addition to the actual running program, she collects running shoes for the children and hosts an annual 5K walk-run fundraiser.

“You have to care about where you live, what mark you want to leave on earth,” she says. “I want to teach children how to be healthy, how to lead a more fruitful life.”

Here’s a look at the other recipients of the 2018 Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Service Award.

INDIVIDUALS

Ann B. Russell, Paul Wilkinson Lifetime Achievement Award:

For 33 years, Russell, 94, has been mentoring and tutoring thousands of children with exceptional needs as a member of the Delaware Foster Grandparents Program.

Karen Tuohy, Human Needs: Tuohy is one of Autism Delaware’s most dedicated volunteers. As the mother of two adult children with autism, and as an educator at Heritage Elementary School in Wilmington, she is passionate about educating the public and improving the lives of individuals with autism and people with disabilities. 

Jennifer Proebstle, Social Justice/Advocacy: Proebstle, a University of Delaware student, has been a volunteer and advocate for Planned Parenthood of Delaware in its education department, and has served as a member and leader for Generation Action, its college advocacy group. During the past three years, she has spent more than 300 hours performing administrative duties, conducting research, aiding in marketing efforts and assisting with outreach.

Beth Peterson, Health and Special Needs: For 14 years, Peterson has led and directed a group of human and canine pet therapy volunteers at Bayhealth Medical Center. She also has spent more than 1,600 hours visiting more than 28,000 patients, families and staff.

Harriet Davies, Human Needs: Davies began serving with Delaware Hospice in 2005, and her dedication has grown each year. She volunteers at Camp New Hope, the organization’s children’s bereavement camp, and at several fundraising events. She also volunteers at Avenue Methodist Church in Milford, the Dover Symphony Orchestra and the Rose Colored Lasses.

Jason Bakke, Arts/Culture: Bakke has been volunteering since the age of 12 for the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, which commemorates Delaware’s first European colony and is a showcase for the Lewes area’s maritime, military and social history. Serving as an educator and interpreter, a researcher, a program developer and a performer, he has been instrumental in assisting museum staff to expand its outreach beyond Lewes and further into Sussex County.

Teresa Salinardo, Community Service: Salinardo has been serving her community in various capacities for more than 50 years.  Currently she volunteers at the Freeman Stage in Selbyville, Easter Seals, the Christian Storehouse Thrift House, Catholic Charities and her local church. In addition, she has served as a foster parent to newborns until they are adopted.

William F. Jiron, Jr., Veterans and Military Families: As an Air Force retiree and a former Department of Defense contractor, Jiron has a personal and comprehensive understanding of the challenges that face veterans. In 2008, he opened the Veterans’ Awareness Center in Greenwood to assist all Delaware veterans to achieve independence and self-sufficiency through access to information and services. For 10 years, he has spent close to 2,000 hours annually working to fulfill this mission.

GROUPS

Newark Arts Alliance Volunteers, Arts/Culture: Alliance volunteers perform a wide range of activities that help build community through the arts. In 2017, they contributed nearly 3,000 hours of service, engaged more than 5,600 community members and provided opportunities for almost 600 artists.

Delta Gamma Sorority, Education/Literacy: The sorority has been assisting the Delaware Division for the Visually Impaired, producing large print books, re-cataloging textbooks, typing books for Braille transcription and labeling books for delivery to public schools. It also helps with mailings, outreach events and summer camp recruitment.

Christiana Care Health System Life History Volunteers, Health and Special Needs: Since October 2012, Christiana Care Health System volunteers have been interviewing patients and writing their non-medical stories to build a bridge between the patients and staff. They have completed more than 526 life histories, allowing staff to deliver care in the context of the whole person.

PAWS for People Training Volunteers, Human Needs: PAWS for People Delaware provides therapeutic visits to people who would benefit from interaction with a well-trained, loving pet. To join a team for PAWS, both the human and pet must become certified through a rigorous training program. The 52 training volunteers welcome new applicants, conduct orientation and basic training, certification and provide ongoing support and mentorship.

Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity Habitat Heroes, Human Needs: Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build affordable homes, communities and hope. Habitat Heroes, most of whom are retired, participate in all aspects of residential construction as they have helped build more than 40 homes since 2009. In 2017, the 10 volunteer Habitat Heroes served a combined 3,000 hours.

Fort Miles Historical Association, Arts/Culture: Founded in 2003 to work with Delaware State Parks and in particular, Cape Henlopen State Park, to develop the potential of Fort Miles, one of American’s coastal defense fortifications, located within the park, the association has grown in 15 years from four to nearly 400 members, sharing the rich history of Delaware’s role in coastal defense.

Common Thread, Economic Development: Common Thread is a group of 10 women from Eagle’s Nest Church in Milton who devote their sewing talents to providing new Sussex County Habitat for Humanity homeowners and families with baskets of hand-sewn and quilted items for their homes. Since its founding in 2015, Common Thread has served more than 40 Habitat for Humanity families in Sussex County.

MERR Institute Volunteers, Environment: The Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute Inc. is a public, nonprofit volunteer-based organization that responds to reports of stranded marine mammals and sea turtles in Delaware. With one paid staff person and 400 trained volunteers, MERR operates throughout Delaware and, in 2017, responded to 232 stranded marine animals. The efforts of MERR and its volunteers save the state more than $450,000 annually.

First State Senior Companion Program Volunteers, Healthy Futures: For 37 years, members of the First State Senior Companion Program have assisted and befriended older adults who have difficulty with daily living tasks. Senior Companions help these adults remain independent in their homes and in their community and offset the responsibilities that typically fall on family members or professional caregivers. In 2017, 67 volunteers served 138 clients and volunteered more than 75,000 hours, saving Delawareans $1.7 million for in-home, non-medical care fees.

American Legion Auxiliary Oak Orchard – Riverdale Unit 20, Veterans and Military Families: In 2017, the unit recorded more than 20,000 hours of service across dozens of programs, benefiting hundreds of veterans, military and their families and community residents.

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